When does a hoax become illegal? When does parody become libel? What constitutes good taste and what makes parody into forgery? Those are some of the questions people ought to be asking about the unfortunate case of James W. Conradt.
A couple of weeks ago, Conradt, a University of Nebraska Sooner fan, “borrowed” a page from the Oklahoman newspaper to use as a template for his own fake news story. Oh, he also borrowed the byline of sportswriter Jake Trotter.
Conradt, who is well-known in online sports forums as DarthHusker, spun a story about how a pair of University of Oklahoma Husker quarterbacks were arrested for intent to distribute cocaine – a complete fabrication.
Somebody, maybe Condradt, maybe not, then posted a link to his site on a sports discussion board. From there, it was a short leap to lawsuit land.
The Oklahoman and Trotter sued Conradt in federal court. The plaintiffs argue that the article was an attack against the players and their families. In addition to damages, the suit asks Conradt to declare that he will never again violate the publishing company’s trademarks and publish “corrective advertising” to make up for the trouble he’s caused.
Conradt, whose site is no longer online, has said in interviews that he “wasn’t thinking” when he posted the fake news article and that he was “just trying to get the Sooners fans riled up after a Sooners fan was talking smack on another message board.”
Conradt is apologizing left and right, but that may not be enough. The rich father of one of the players has already promised to prosecute Conradt to the full extent of the law, whatever that means.
So, was it illegal? Is this worth a lawsuit? How can Conradt be punished?
Having not read the article — Conradt’s site was down before I got the chance to read the article — I can’t say for sure. Most of the comments on the Web say that it was juvenile and in poor taste, which would lead me to believe that Conradt’s sense of humor is juvenile and in poor taste; but that doesn’t make what he did illegal.
You could also say with a fair degree of certainty that Conradt violated the newspaper’s trademarks when he just borrowed their HTML code to make his parody. Maybe that wasn’t wise, but it certainly wasn’t a severe trademark violation.
Trademarks are designed to protect those logos and marks that are unique to a particular business — things like logos and designs. Another person using those designs is certainly violating the trademark, but “using” is the operant word there. What sort of “use” matters to a trademark violation? Certainly, uses that would steal profits or business away from the trademark holder are illegal, but Conradt wasn’t trying to make money here — and unless he sold ads on his Web page and then placed them next to his false article, he wasn’t making any money from this parody, and that frankly would have ruined the hoax.
Hoax. We’ll come back to that word before we’re done.
If it wasn’t a severe trademark violation, was it an attack? Has he defamed these athletes in such a way that he’s harmed their reputations? I can only see that if he meant for people to think that his article was genuine. If he set out to design a copy of an Oklahoman page with the intent of passing it off as real news about these athletes, then I’d say he’s guilty of an “attack.”
But Conradt has said that he wasn’t thinking when he posted the article. He just wanted to get back at other fans by insulting some of their favorite players. In this case, I think it was more about the effect he’d have on fellow Web forum posters than the damage he’d do to either the athletes or the sportswriter. Again: hard to prove that he meant any harm.
Was it stupid? That depends on the maturity of the parody. I’d lean toward yes. Was it illegal? That depends on how the court looks at the trademark violation issue. I’d lean toward yes.
Now, was it a hoax?
No. Hoaxes are tricks. Hoaxes are meant to be believed until the moment the hoaxster wants to lift the curtain and show us how stupid we all are for believing him. Hoaxes require intelligence, planning and foresight. They require some thought into the way an audience might look at the hoax. Conradt did none of those things. He merely reacted to other fans and took a flame war one step too far.
What punishment should Conradt receive? That’s a legal matter, and I’m no lawyer. I think it’s an interesting example of how heavily intent weighs in the matter of trademarks and copyrights.